There have been 2 exchanges involving Lord Polak and the Ministry of Defence
|Mon 20th July 2020||British Overseas Troops: Civil Liability Claims (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (115 words)|
|Tue 7th January 2020||Queen’s Speech (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (690 words)|
I thank my noble friend for his helpful comments and his tribute to my honourable friend, Mr Johnny Mercer, who is a noted proponent of the interests of veterans and a passionate supporter of this Bill. My noble friend gets to the kernel of the issue. I fully anticipate debate about a number of aspects of the Bill—that is healthy and the Government will of course look carefully at what your Lordships have to say when the Bill comes to your Lordships’ House—but I can confirm for my noble friend that, for the sake of our veterans and armed services personnel, it is important that the underlying principle and under- pinning thrust of the Bill be preserved.
My Lords, the die is cast in political terms. We are leaving the EU, but there is still a way to go before we cast off completely from Europe. I remain a remainer. I not only think the decision to leave was wrong, but I believe and hope we shall make every effort to coincide the interests of the UK with those of our European allies. That much I think the Minister could and will accept today. After all, our security—as well as our economy—depends on it.
It is early days, but fortunately this Government have not yet set their priorities in stone. There is much to be negotiated, not just on trade but on our relationship with the various elements of the Commission that have been an essential part of our foreign policy for over four decades. The sharing of data and intelligence in respect of both criminal activity and our defence and security is critical to our future identity. As a leader in international development, we are also bound to work with our European neighbours.
On defence, the US remains our key ally in NATO, despite its impetuous, disaster-prone and sometimes reckless President, as we have heard more than once today. France and Germany will become the key European axis, with the UK now at one remove. But we must stay close to President Macron, who seems to have a Gaullist streak—although the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said that he is a listening President. He certainly needs more external distractions at the moment and his position at home is precarious; nevertheless, he has done the rest of us a great favour in challenging Presidents Trump and Erdoğan simultaneously for their outrageous disregard for NATO and international co-operation in Syria. The Turkish invasion broke all the rules and our oldest ally failed to consult even EU and NATO members. Then came last week’s strikes against Iran, including the disproportionate killing of General Soleimani, and not even the signatories of the Iran nuclear treaty complained. NATO allies now have to patch it up with Turkey: they have to pay their 2% subs in full—Trump is right about that. As Jeremy Hunt recently pointed out, as long as the US pays double it will always call the shots.
The war between Russia and Ukraine following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has cost thousands of lives. The election of President Zelensky has led to prisoner swaps and some hopes of peace in Donbass, but Russia’s continual bullying over the new gas pipeline and President Trump’s attempted investigation of the Biden family have muddied the waters still further. US sanctions and Putin’s attitude to the INF treaty have left the EU looking incapable. There is certainly no room for the UK in this multiple crisis, and yet, as a NATO partner, we have to remain on full alert and expect that the worst may happen.
The western Balkans remains another priority for NATO, and this time our own defence forces have an important ground role, only 20 years after the war in Bosnia and Kosovo. Once again, Russia’s dirty tricks must keep us on our guard.
While NATO’s role in the Middle East remains uncertain, its relations with Africa are more defined as a result of the agreement signed with the African Union in Naples on 4 November. This will lead to greater co-operation in exercises and training.
I am impressed by the British Army’s involvement in international development, especially in Unity state in South Sudan, which I have visited and where I have followed events quite closely. About 300 soldiers, some trained engineers, have been clearing roads and making aid more accessible, including helping women and children to reach the UN distribution centres. On one road near Bentiu, in the course of a fortnight, a number of women were raped on their way to collect food. It is one of the most dangerous areas in the world because of prevailing conflict over oil resources and the failure of government to reconcile different ethnic groups. Human security is becoming a normal target of aid missions such as this one, and the MoD and other ministries are to be congratulated on this joined-up approach. Nevertheless, many of us have concerns about the proposed merger of our aid programme. Conflict prevention is easily understood as a joint ministry programme, but integrating all our aid and diplomatic missions would be clumsy, impracticable and unaccountable.
Incidentally, I was pleased to hear the Minister mention special protection for developing countries against climate change. I look forward to hearing more details on that.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Polak, just reminded us, General Soleimani was a deeply dangerous man. However, the truth is that all America’s allies were caught short by his killing, and all now face an unpredictable situation in the Middle East, perhaps as dangerous as any since 2003. I know that officials have been working flat out since Friday to make sure that measures are taken to keep British people and interests as safe as they can. I listened carefully to the Statement made earlier this afternoon and welcome the immediate steps the Government are taking. However, whatever the intentions behind the attack, it has already damaged western interests. It has increased the prospect of terrorist attacks, including unplanned, opportunistic attacks. It has undercut the moderates in Iran and strengthened the hardliners. It has exposed the coalition military forces in Iraq—including British forces—to greater risk. They were doing vital work in the fight against ISIS, but there must now be a real risk that any western military presence in Iraq will become unsustainable. I fear that it has also removed any last prospect of keeping the nuclear deal alive.
This upheaval comes on top of President Trump’s decision before Christmas to pull US forces out of northern Syria—which left Turkey and Russia as the dominant players in the area—and his plan to pull remaining US forces out of Afghanistan. The upshot of all this could be an American military and political retreat from that whole arc of crisis from Turkey to Pakistan. That would leave Britain, the US and other western allies with powerful military forces and major interests in the Gulf facing a vast area to the north dominated by Russia, Turkey and Iran. That does not feel like a recipe for stability. If this is too apocalyptic, perhaps the Minister could tell me where my analysis is wrong. This feels to me like a major strategic shift.
The statement by the three European leaders on Sunday was remarkable for not making any mention of the US or the attack on General Soleimani. It shows how divided the West is as we deal with this crisis. Once again, Britain finds more common ground with our European friends than with Washington. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to Washington is timely and important, and it will be a real test of whether Britain can go on playing the traditional go-between role that we have played in the past. I very much hope that we can, but my goodness, it is a delicate operation.
The Middle East is not the only area of strategic incoherence in our world. President Macron’s description of NATO as brain dead was a bit on the strong side. The Government deserve credit for piloting to success the NATO summit at Watford, which showed that the military side of the alliance is in good shape. But is the Macron thesis wholly wrong? I do not think that it is. Look at Donald Trump’s impatience with multilateralism, his pursuit of great power competition and bilateral arm-twisting. Look at European leaders who are pursuing strategic autonomy for Europe as their confidence in the American defence guarantee wanes. As other noble Lords have said, Turkey is pursuing its own line, which does not square with our interests or values. Britain is left uncomfortably trying to bridge the gaps and find fixes within the alliance. Can the Minister tell us how the process of reflection about NATO’s future, which was announced in the Watford communiqué, will be taken forward?
The gracious Speech, as other noble Lords have noted, declares the Government’s intention to hold an integrated security, defence and foreign policy review. I was co-ordinator of the 2010 strategic defence and security review which got such low marks earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I wish my former colleagues well with what will be the third review in a decade, but with the world changing so fast, we need to look again at the basic assumptions of British strategy. We need a new national strategy and a convincing narrative to back it up—based, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said earlier, on a broad national conversation, to give us a base of public support. I hope that it would conclude that Britain is still an active global player, while recognising our limits and avoiding tub-thumping.
Here is my challenge for the strategists. Would it not be powerful if they could come up with a distinctly attractive British proposition to reinforce multilateralism? What better country to do that? We should aim for a group of like-minded, mid-sized democracies, not just the Europeans but Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea, all of which share the same world view as us. We could work through international institutions as they exist and think about new groupings. That will need action and political will. I believe that the Americans are capable of again recognising the importance of multilateralism to solve their problems.
I finish with a piece of breaking news. I was going to ask the Minister if we can look forward to there being a British ambassador in Washington in this troubled world. However, I find that the No. 10 spokesman today announced that the job of ambassador has been advertised. Before noble Lords send their nomination papers to the Minister, I should just draw attention to the last sentence of the announcement, which says that the Government expect to fill the role from within the Civil Service. I am sorry.